A Magnificently Carved Lobed Dingyao Basin Northern Song Dynasty
- 22.2 cm., 8 3/4 in.
Sotheby’s London, 2nd March 1971, lot 135 (£ 49,000, highest price in the sale).
Mostra d’Arte Cinese/Exhibition of Chinese Art, Palazzo Ducale, Venice, 1954, cat. no. 531.
L’art de la chine des Song, Musée Cernuschi, Paris, 1956, cat. no. 28.
The Arts of the Sung Dynasty, The Arts Council of Great Britain and The Oriental Ceramic Society, The Arts Council Gallery, London, 1960, cat. no. 21.
Madeleine David, ‘Céramiques Song, 960-1279’, Cahiers de la céramique et des arts du feu, Hiver 1956-7, no. 5, p. 8, fig. 1.
Jan Wirgin, 'Sung Ceramic Designs', Bulletin of the Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, no. 42, 1970, fig. 5 b (line drawing of the central design).
White porcelain, sparkling, glossy, smooth and impermeable, and thus appetizing and hygienic, is still the finest material available for tableware, catering to the most discriminating tastes even today. White Ding ware is and always was one of the most admired ceramic wares of China, much copied already at its time, standing out among the many wares of the Song (960-1279) as the best suited for food and medicine. True Ding ware is mostly of good quality and pleasing design, but this large bowl, which is unique, is outstanding in every respect, and represents a rare example of this ware at its very best: combining exquisite material with fine potting, a particularly successful shape with pleasing proportions, and a spirited, freely and distinctly incised design.
Ding ware was always highly acclaimed at court. A tribute to the court of 2,000 pieces of Ding ware with metal-bound rim is recorded for the year AD 980. Many Ding vessels were discovered in the tomb of Emperor Taizong’s Empress, who died in AD 977 and was later reburied in AD 1000. A large number of Ding vessels from the Qing (1644-1911) court collection are still remaining in the Palace Museum, Beijing, others are in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, several of them bearing inscriptions by the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-95). Many early Ding wares, particularly of the Tang (618-907) and Five Dynasties (907-960) periods, but also of the Song dynasty, are inscribed with the character guan (‘official’) or xin guan (‘new official’), and the excavations of the Quyang kiln sites in Hebei province have brought to light sherds of the Song and Jin (1115-1234) dynasties inscribed with the characters dong gong, ‘Eastern Palace’, and the names of two administrative units within the Court, Shangyaoju, the ‘Palace Medical Service’, and Shangshiju the ‘Palace Food Service’ (for the former see, for example, Ding ci ya ji. Gugong Bowuyuan zhencang ji chutu Dingyao ciqi huicui/Selection of Ding Ware. The Palace Museum’s Collection and Archaeological Excavation, Palace Museum, Beijing, 2012, cat. nos. 3, 6-9, and 28; and Zhongguo gu ciyao daxi. Zhongguo Dingyao/Series of China’s Ancient Porcelain Kiln Sites. Ding Kiln of China, Beijing, 2012, cat. nos. 21, 42, 55, 68, 70, 77; for the latter see Tei yō. Yūga naru haku no sekai: Yōshi hakkutsu seika ten/Ding Ware. The World of White Elegance: Recent Archaeological Findings, Museum of Oriental Ceramics, Osaka, 2013-14, cat. nos. 45-6 and 32-3).
Ding ware has been located to kiln sites at Jianci, Beizhen, Eastern and Western Yanchuan and Yebei villages near Baoding city, Quyang county, Hebei province, although examples of similarly high quality have also been excavated in Jingxing county, further southwest in Hebei.
Given the overall excellence of this white ware, it is only natural that the court would have picked it as one of its ceramics. However, in the Song dynasty, kilns working for the court were neither strictly controlled by the court nor restricted to cater solely for imperial use. The majority of Ding wares, beautiful though they are, are mass-produced and come from a production line, where shapes and designs had been expertly worked out to be repeated in large quantities in nearly identical manner. These include the vast number of bowls and dishes with swiftly incised overall designs that tend to blend in with the slightly opaque glaze and to form a fairly indistinct overall enhancement of the vessel, rather than standing out as distinct decoration. Often, the decoration does not take the shape of the vessel into account at all, and can even be partly obliterated by sharp grooves from subsequent moulding.
The present bowl belongs to a very different category, to an exceedingly small group of Ding wares, which are individually modelled and decorated, of well-designed form and with distinctly rendered, naturalistic flower decoration that represents an integral part of the vessel’s beauty.
The exquisite, deeply eight-lobed shape of the present bowl, reminiscent more of a fruit than a flower, is as satisfactory to hold like a plump, cut-open melon. Yet the potting is most delicate. The grooves, indented on the outside, form a sharp ridge on the inside, reinforced by added lines of slip. An expert potter’s finishing touch was a quick movement of a knife to pare off the edge around the base, to make the base narrower and the shape thereby much more elegant.
Bowls of similar eight-lobed shape are extremely rare and generally undecorated around the sides. Compare four such bowls in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, one larger (25 cm, fig. 1), and three of similar size or smaller (20.5 cm, 22.5 cm and 22.9 cm), but with a shallow foot, and plain except for an engraved lotus motif in the centre and raised ribs inside, all included in the museum’s current exhibition Dingzhou hua ci. Yuan cang Dingyao xi bai ci tezhan/Decorated Porcelains of Dingzhou. White Ding Wares from the Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2014, cat. nos. II-80, 81 and 82; another (21.6 cm) of that type from the Sir Percival David Collection now in the British Museum, London, is illustrated in Margaret Medley, Illustrated Catalogue of Ting and Allied Wares, Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, London, 1980, pl. VI, no. 42; and a smaller one (18.4 cm) excavated from a Jin tomb of 1177 and now in the Capital Museum, Beijing, is published in Shoudu Bowuguan cang ci xuan [Selection of porcelains from the Capital Museum], Beijing, 1991, pl. 48.
A much smaller (10.6 cm) lobed bowl, probably reduced in height and referred to as a washer, but otherwise very similar, with a single lotus spray in the centre and plain sides with raised ribs inside, preserved in the Palace Museum collection, Beijing, is inscribed on the base ju xiu (elegance assembled); see The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Porcelain of the Song Dynasty, Beijing, 1996, vol. 1, pl. 82.
A larger lobed basin (26.5 cm) in the Seikadō Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, classified as Important Cultural Property, is a rare example with floral incising both inside and outside, but of coarser type, see Yutaka Mino, Chūgoku no tōji [China’s ceramics], vol. 5: Hakuji [White wares], Tokyo, 1998, col. pl. 47.
Other large bowls with this bevelled edge around the base tend to be round, with indentations only faintly hinted at on the outside, and thus completely different in appeal; compare two large Ding basins (26 cm and 24.5 cm) from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing, both with straight rim and incised with indistinct overall lotus scrolls, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Porcelain of the Song Dynasty, Beijing, 1996, vol. 1, pls. 47 and 55; another (24.5 cm) in the Osaka Museum of Oriental Ceramics, classified as Important Cultural Property, is published in Mino, op. cit., col. pl. 46.
A tree peony design, naturalistically represented with its serrated leaf, is extremely rare. A similar peony spray appears in the centre of two small dishes or brushwashers in the National Palace Museum, both of which are engraved on the base with an inscription by the Qianlong Emperor; see the exhibition catalogue De jia qu. Qianlong Huangdi de taoci pinwei/Obtaining Refined Enjoyment: The Qianlong Emperor’s Taste in Ceramics, National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2012, cat. nos. 5 and 6 (fig. 2); a dish with this design in the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum, Kansas City, is published in Zhongguo gu ciyao daxi, op. cit., p. 279, fig. 27.
Lotus motifs are very common on Ding ware, but tend to be so sketchily rendered that they are sometimes interpreted as day-lily motifs, even though they are often combined with the arrow-head water plant. The lotus is rarely seen in the naturalistically manner as depicted here, with its leaf variously curled and turned in different directions. This motif appears similarly on only a few other fine Ding pieces, such as a six-lobed food bowl in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, included in the Museum’s current exhibition Dingzhou hua ci, op. cit., cat. no. II-39 (fig. 3); and a fragment of a similar Song bowl, that forms part of the Gugong’s vast sherd collection, which includes Ding sherds recovered from the kiln sites at Jiancicun and Yanchuancun in Quyang county, Hebei; see Gugong Bowuguan cang Zhongguo gudai yaozhi biaoben, vol. 2: Hebei juan [Specimens from China’s ancient kilns preserved in the Palace Museum, vol. 2: Hebei volume], Beijing, 2006, pl. 169 top.
On a lobed dish from the Qing court collection in the Palace Museum, Beijing, similar lotus sprays alternate with ducks, see Ding ci ya ji, op. cit., cat. no. 82, or The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Porcelain of the Song Dynasty, Beijing, 1996, vol. 1, pl. 61; an identical dish from the Kempe collection was included in the exhibition Chinese Gold, Silver and Porcelain The Kempe Collection, Asia House Gallery, New York, 1971, cat. no. 110, and sold in our London rooms, 14th May 2008, lot 258.
The well-known record in a Song text that the court did not appreciate Ding wares because of their unglazed rims and ordered wares from the Ru kilns instead, has been discussed by Ts’ai Mei-fen of the National Palace Museum, Taipei, at a symposium organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1996. She argued that unglazed rims were not the consequence of the kilns’ practice of firing bowls upside down, but that “the reason for the unglazed rim was that the metal-banded rim was the popular taste of the time”, approved even at court, and that “the practice of covering edges … began well before the Ting [Ding] kiln started firing its ware upside down. The practice was not introduced to cover up the unglazed rim, but, on the contrary, the unglazed rim was possibly instituted because of the popular practices of decorating edges.” She states that the Wensiyuan (Crafts Institute), a workshop for the production of jewellery under the Directorate for Imperial Manufactories, as well as the Houyuan Zaozuosuo (Palace Workshop of the Rear Garden), another workshop that produced articles for use in the inner court, both included a Lengzuo workshop, for the ‘decoration of edges’. Ts’ai suggests therefore that the quote does not refer to imperial taste but to the fact that metal-bound vessels were not considered suitable for certain imperial ritual ceremonies. See Ts’ai Mei-fen, ‘A Discussion of Ting Ware with Unglazed Rims and Related Twelfth-Century Official Porcelain’, Arts of the Sung and Yüan, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1996, pp. 109-31.
On the present bowl the tactile ivory-tinged glaze, with its characteristic ‘tears’ of a deeper tone, preserves its attractive original lustre. Pieces of comparable quality are outstandingly rare and hardly left in private collections. The bowl was in the fabled collection of Alfred and Ivy Clark already in 1949, before Alfred Clark’s death, and featured in many important exhibitions, but has not been publicly shown since 1971, when it was last sold at Sotheby’s.
Alfred (1873-1950, fig. 4) and Mrs. Ivy Clark (1890 or 91-1976), both major supporters of the London Oriental Ceramic Society and its exhibitions, started collecting in the 1920s. Edgar Bluett devoted two articles in the art magazine Apollo to their collection already in 1933 and 1934. Although they donated some of their pieces to the British Museum, the majority was sold over the years in different sales at Sotheby’s. Lady David, when asked whose collection Sir Percival David ranked highest, thought the collection of the Clarks would have been most to his taste (Orientations, vol. 23, no. 4, 1992). The Clark’s outstanding collection of Song ceramics, of which they lent twenty-eight pieces to the important Oriental Ceramic Society exhibition The Arts of the Sung Dynasty in London, 1960, also included the magnificent lobed Ru guanyao brush washer sold in these rooms, 4th April 2012, lot 101 and still holding the world record price for Song ceramics.